Book Review Business Economics Investing Student

The Fault in Ourselves

“The fault, dear investor, is not in our stars- and not in our stocks- but in ourselves…”

-Benjamin Graham

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Daniel Kahneman fascinatingly explains the fault that is in our intuition, biases, decision making, and sheds light to rationality. In economics and finance, we are taught theories that assume rationality and well-informed decision making of individuals, but we must learn these theories with much caution, as Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow illustrates that human decision-making is indeed more flawed in reality, and certainly more than we notice. I will illustrate a few of his examples below that will (hopefully) spark your interest, and likely bend your mind, as it did to me.

To begin, Kahneman explains the mind as two systems, System 1 which is intuition (thinking fast) and System 2, which is your analytical system (thinking slow). For instance, the last time you were mad over something small and had to embarrassingly apologize afterwards, might have been due to your System 1, thinking (too) fast. Your emotions clouded your System 2 (your analyzing system) from working and you acted irrationally. Note that your System 2 is also quite “lazy”, so the majority of the time, you’re on auto-pilot with System 1, and (thankfully) most of the time it’s right. But other times when System 2 is needed, and fails to show up or to properly analyze, decision-making results can be devastating.

Here’s a quick test of your systems.

What’s 2 x 2?                  What’s 2+2?

Right away you knew the answer for both were 4 (that’s your intuitive System 1). Now:

     What’s 28 x 9?               What’s 38 x 17?

Your pupils moderately dilated, your blood pressure slightly increased; your System 2 was engaged into computing the answer, as your System 1 was unable to quickly solve it. For some, it is possible that the latter questions came intuitively via their System 1; they’ve practiced a great deal of mathematics that allowed them to generate the answer automatically. For those who had to employ their lazy System 2, don’t you regret not practicing math a little more when you were younger? I sure do…(252, 646, btw).

Speaking of regret; Kahneman defines it as an emotion and a punishment we do to ourselves. Frequently, we lag in our decision making due to the fear of regret. It stems from a deviation from the norm, or the default position (p.348). For instance, when you buy a stock the default is to hold it, when you enter a relationship, the default is to stay, when you finish seeing your friends, the default is to say goodbye; selling a stock too early, ending a relationship badly and even not saying goodbye can produce regret. Here’s another example: You’re the coach of a team that just badly lost your last game. You’re expected to make a change in players or strategy; failing to do so will produce regret (p.348). Notice how here, a specific action is the default, deviating from that will produce unpleasant emotions. Regret does indeed affect the decision of many, but there is good news: people generally anticipate more regret than they will actually experience, this is because we underestimate the efficacy of our psychological defences (p.352).

Here’s an unnoticeable pitfall people tend to make that may lead to regret, it’s called the The Sunk Cost Fallacy. More often than not, this fallacy makes us stay in things longer than we should. A bad job, a poor performing stock with no turnaround in sight; we would rather continue wasting our resources in a failing project than to stop, admit defeat and have a bad stain in our record .

Somewhat related to the Sunk Cost Fallacy is the disposition effect. A (unfortunately) real example for many investors is the following: when choosing to sell stocks in their portfolio, often times they choose to sell the winning stocks rather than the losers; they want to add a win to their record, instead of closing out losing stocks which would add a loss. Simply put it, gaining is pleasure and losing is pain, and we would much rather choose pleasure than pain. But, pleasure does come with its price, and in this case choosing purely based on a current winner and loser can be irrational and devastating. According to Kahneman, you should have a thorough analysis of your portfolio and sell the stock that is less likely to perform well in the future, not whether it is a winner or loser.

Here’s another pitfall that can significantly influence our optimism or pessimism when decision-making is “Framing“. Consider the following scenario:

How would you feel if I said the following before you entered a life-saving surgery:

90% of the people who receive this surgery survive.

Now If I told you this:

10% of people who receive this surgery die.

Both statements have the same probability of success-failure, but the way it was framed, did indeed give you different mental pictures. Another example of framing within Thinking Fast and Slow is the following:

You receive $70

Would you rather:

Keep $30           or          Lose $40

As you’ve noticed, both options are objectively the same, but most individuals prefer the keeping $30 than the losing $40 option. Being able to reframe this question objectively, and not emotion-bound, takes much effort of your System 2, and since it efforts exhausts our energy, we passively accept decision problems as they are framed (p. 367).

Here’s a final- shortened example of framing that will bend your mind, it comes straight from the framing experiment conducted by Kahneman and his friend, Amos (p.368):

Imagine that the United States is preparing for an outbreak of some unknown disease. It is expected to kill 600 people, but there are two types of action plan that can be implemented to fight this disease:

-Action Plan A: 200 people will be saved.

-Action Plan B: There is a one-third chance that 600 people will be saved, and a two-thirds probability that no one will be saved.

What’s your choice? Think carefully. The majority of respondents chose A; taking the sure option rather than the gamble.

Now the experiment is framed differently. Consider the following options:

-Action Plan A: 400 people will die.

-Action Plan B: There is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.

What’s your choice? Again, think carefully. The majority of respondents chose B, as you may have as well. “Decision makers tend to prefer a sure thing over a gamble when the outcomes are good. They tend to reject the sure thing and accept the gamble when both outcomes are bad”(p.368). Note how you’ve accepted a gamble with a 67% (rounded) chance of failure, even though it’s a bad gamble (numerically), it seemed like a good choice in this case.

Here’s the interesting part: You chose to save 200 lives for sure (Action Plan A) in the first question, and chose to gamble with Action Plan B, rather than accept 400 deaths in the second; there’s an inconsistency in the choices you make. Think about it…

We could go on forever in discussing the biases and faults in our intuition provided in this book (there’s a lot more), but let’s end with the Anchoring Effect. This happens when “people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating it” (p.119). For instance, if you are looking to purchase a house, you are likely to be influenced by the asking price (the anchor). You would feel a price of $1 million is expensive if the asking price was $700k. On the contrary, you would feel a price of $1 million is cheap if the asking price was $1.3 million. If I said the number 30 and asked you to provide an estimate of Shakespeare’s age at death, you’ll likely give a lower number than if I said the number 90. You’ll be inclined to use the number provided as an anchor and work your way up or down from it. This shows that we are susceptible to subconscious biases from an anchor and recognizing that can help us avoid poor decisions. This technique is used in sales and negotiations, so next time you’re negotiating a price, make sure you don’t get anchored by a number.

When you choose to read this book, you’ll learn valuable rationality lessons such as the law of small numbers, optimistic biases, the possibility effect and much, much more in Kahneman’s astonishing literature. After giving Thinking Fast and Slow a read, your thought process and decision-making will surely be enriched, as mine was.

Much of the recognition of our intuitive faults will seem unnatural to do, and indeed hard to consistently notice when we act irrationally. But nothing good comes easy. By being aware that it is easy to fall into the traps of our own irrational decision-making; we can avoid making potentially devastating mistakes, and make more sound decisions. For the investor, the chief problem, and even his worst enemy is very likely to be himself. You should give this one a read, you probably won’t regret it 😉 Find it here.

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